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US, China eye Africa

Philipp Sandner / mcAugust 10, 2012

During her 11-day tour of Africa, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been urging governments to look for reliable partners. This is not just self promotion for Washington, it is also a swipe at China.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Dakar, Senegal. Picture: REUTERS/Joe Penney
Image: Reuters

On her African tour, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed down plenty of thinly disguised criticism.

Washington, she said, was determined to campaign on behalf of human rights and democracy in Africa, even though it would have been easier and far more profitable just to focus on the continent's natural resources.

That was the message with which the secretary of state opened her tour in Senegal and she emphasized that not every partner shared these priorities.

The veiled reference to China could scarcely be overlooked and the Chinese news agency Xinhua promptly accused Clinton of trying to drive a wedge between Africa and China, which, it said, currently enjoy a friendly, equitable relationship.

Democracy and human rights versus non-interference

But how different are the respective positions of the US and China on Africa in practice?

The US emphasizes its role as a campaigner for democracy. China sets little store by good governance and human rights and makes no secret of the fact. Together with the other BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) China deliberately avoids linking the distribution of development aid to specific political conditions, contrary to the old colonial powers.

Chinese president Hu Jintao in Maputo, Mozambique in 2007.
China displaced the United States as Africa's top trading partner in 2009.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

This is a fundamental tenet of China's Africa policy, according to Philipp Gieg, political scientist at the University of Würzburg in Germany. "Unlike the West, China will say we will not interfere in the way you run your country," he told DW.

Criticism of US

However, Gieg added that the United States is also not beyond reproach in this respect. Washington judges all nations by the same yardstick, he said.

In Ethiopia, the opposition is persecuted and media freedoms are suppressed. Yet it is a strategic partner in the battle against terrorism in the Middle East and Somalia. "The US therefore cannot afford to be too severe in its criticism of Ethiopia," Gieg said.

Military aid to Rwanda, though, has been cut because the Rwandan government is allegedly backing rebels in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Gieg, this shows that the US applies double standards.

Both China and the US agree that Africa has potential for growth and both wish to profit from it. Clinton described trade and investment as important pillars in the US's Africa strategy. Chinese economic activity in almost every country on the continent is clearly visible.

A study conducted by the non-profit Südwind Institute in Germany on behalf of the European Union showed that 46 percent of China's development aid is channelled to Africa.

It can come in the form of loans which are mostly coupled to specific schemes, such as infrastructure projects, which are carried out by Chinese firms. The participating countries pay back those loans mostly with raw goods and materials.

AGOA extended

African countries are also a welcome market for cheaply produced exports which compete with local products. Gieg says the US and Europe are pursuing a similar strategy. "It is just like the old times. The colonies exported natural resources and imported manufactured goods."

BRICS' heads of state, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, China's President Hu Jintao and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma: Picture: Andres Leighton AP/dapd
BRICS trade and investment have helped Africa through the global economic downturnImage: AP

However, Gieg adds that the US now appreciates the existence of this imbalance and is trying to rectify it. He was referring the African Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA, which enables African countries to place their inexpensive goods on the US market.

The act, which permits the duty-free import of African goods into the US, has just been extended for another three years.

Gieg says African governments will need to keep an eye on the long-term benefits of any potential foreign investment.. He also warns against condemning China too hastily.

The Südwind study showed that trade and investment set in motion by the BRICS group of nations (of which China is a member) was able to help ward off the adverse effects of the global economic downturn in Africa.

China replaced the US as Africa's most important trading partner a number of years ago. With her tour of seven African countries in eleven days, Hillary Clinton was able to put on record that the US has nonetheless not lost interest in the continent.